Sunday 24 January 2016

A Britfest, a Barragem and a Chapel of Bones: Sesimbra to Évora

Portugal, 15th - 19th January 2016

We’re currently in Alentejo, which is one of the poorest regions in Portugal but the main source of the country’s olives and cork.  We have been told that as far as Portuguese wine goes the Alentejo stuff is generally decent; we’ve been testing this theory on a nice €1.99 bottle, but as one bottle is too small a sample size for conclusive results we’ll have to consume more, all in the name of science of course.   The latest news in Van Land:  We’ve still not got around to replacing the water pump (however we have increased the volume of water in our jug showers to a luxurious 2.5L per person).  My cooking-less-meat resolution is still on track, with no complaints from Matt (yet).  Oh, and we’ve come across a van using a generator to power a portable washing machine, so I feel like we can finally say we’ve seen everything the motorhome world has to offer.

We awoke—I say awoke with a very loose definition of the word—at Cabo Espichal feeling rather worse for wear.  The thing about sleeping near lighthouses is that they tend to be at very exposed spots, meaning that if there is wind, you’re without a doubt going to know about it.  In my case, after a slight delay in getting to sleep, right about the point where I was starting to drop off into the land of nod the wind started hammering against the van.  And so began a long slow night; the wind was not continuous, but kept coming and going in sharp gusts that lulled you into a false sense of security before having you wide awake as it shook the van about again.  I probably didn’t get much more than a half hour or so of sleep, and Matt (between his bouts of sleeptalking where he seemed sure I was duck taping the net curtains to the walls to flatten them out) didn’t fare much better.

After we’d walked up the road to investigate signs about dinosaur tracks (and discovering it to be a two hour walk which we were ill prepared to go on), I went back to the van to tidy up whilst Matt had another walk around the church.  Then, it was off to the next main town along, Sesimbra.  Anyone who knows us well knows that we love a freebie, and we’d read the castle at Sesimbra had no entry fee.  We drove up the hill to the castle, where the parking is within the castle walls, and went for a wander around.  It’s easy to see why they chose this location for a castle; from the ramparts, you can see out over the whole coastal town of Sesimbra, as well as out to fields in the opposite direction.  It’s a great vantage point and was certainly constructed with war in mind, with two cisterns and marks in the ground where huge pots would have been buried full of grain to last out a siege.  If Sesimbra was overrun the townspeople could flee to the castle, but they didn’t get this privilege for free: the walls were built and maintained by the locals who were selected for the duty on a rota basis.  Now, few of the buildings have been preserved beyond the keep and main walls, but the church on the grounds still looks well maintained and in regular use, with blue ceramic tiled walls (azulejos) painted with Bible scenes, which even heathens like myself could identify one of (the Last Supper).
The view from the ramparts
Sesimbra Castelo's church
Post Sesimbra, it was off inland to a point that was highlighted on our map from a recommendation last year, Barragem Pego do Altar (GPS: 38.41955 -8.39222).  After calling at a Lidl so I could wander around the shop in a sleep-deprived trance whilst Matt kept a keen eye on the staff member who was replenishing the bakery, we arrived at the Barragem (Portuguese name for dam) where our closer proximity to the Algarve sunshine was marked by the first large gathering of vans we’d seen since Figueira de Foz.  We made a trip to the toilet block, where there is a threaded tap in the Ladies’ and a hatch you can empty your chemical toilet in just outside, and then got parked up in one of the few remaining spots by the dam and got settled in for the night, with Matt supervising my cooking so I didn’t face-plant into the curry before we had an early night.

After catching up on some much needed sleep we’d intended to have a day getting on with some jobs (cleaning, blogging, general organisation and the like), but as normally happens when we find a lot of GB plates in one place, we found ourselves integrating into Brit Corner and chatting with the other vans.  One couple, Tony and Cheryl (who you can follow here), asked if we’d been to the barragem last year as we looked familiar.  After talking about previous travels Matt clicked that our paths had crossed in Greece last summer (in a Lidl car park of all places); it is a small world, or continent at least!  Everyone had been to Portugal before, with many of our neighbours wintering in Portugal on a yearly basis (such as Bob and Wendy, who have been coming for 26 years since they were a similar age to us), so it was interesting to hear how things had changed.  It seems that back then you could park just about anywhere with no worries about getting moved on or fined by the police and there were none of the current overcrowding issues down in the Algarve.

We stayed at the barragem for three nights, only moving the van to get into a better spot, as our first parking position was in the shade as well as perilously close to the bottom of a cliff.  On our last night at the barragem we joined our neighbour Bill (who co-founded the forum for drinks down at the local bar, which of course turned from one planned hour into several.  Bill has travelled around Norway and some of the other northern countries, which is definitely an area we are looking forward to touring in the future. We had an enjoyable evening chatting travels, vans and careers, then wandered back a bit wobbly as Matt and I had gone out before having eaten.

Judging by the wall scrapes, many a vehicle
found themselves ill prepared for the town...
Monday rolled around and the road was calling out again, so onwards we went to Évora.  Évora is a UNESCO listed museum-city (although with a population under 60000 it’s certainly not a large city) that has both Roman and Moorish history, but reached its peak around the 15th-16th centuries, when the Portuguese royalty made it their home.  It’s a walled city of narrow streets, so you can’t enter in a motorhome unless you are quite possibly insane, but it’s a fairly compact place to get around and there’s plenty of free parking at the north and south ends.

Inside the city Évora has a bit of a maze-like feeling, with buildings packed into narrow cobbled streets as well as into the arches of the old aqueduct.  Thanks to its mixed heritage it has a lot of interesting architecture, from the remains of Roman temples and baths to the more recent Igreja de São Francisco (Church of St. Francis), which from the back looks rather like a Disney Princess castle with clean creamy bricks and conical spires, but is home to the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of the Bones), accessed by an alternate entrance to the right of the church’s entrance.
Houses built into the Aqueduto do Água Prata
Igreja da Graça
Igreja de São Francisco (my Princess Castle)
Antiga Universidade

It’s been a while since we’ve spent money on a paid attraction but the Chapel of the Bones was definitely worth a look (and wasn’t exactly a big investment at €2 pp).  It was built in the 16th century with the intention of creating a meditation place to remind the monks that life is a transitory state before death, and uses the bones and skulls of thousands of bodies to get the message across, as well as two corpses (which were temporarily removed for preservation on our visit) hanging from the walls.  Rows of skulls morbidly decorate the archways, and the walls are lined with stacked bones.  I don’t know what the monks at the time thought of the place, but the graffiti on the few skulls within arm’s reach of the public gives us something of a reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing: enjoy life while you can, because some day centuries from now someone might be engraving their initials on the remains of your forehead.

It seems like everyone who is someone in Portuguese history is called João, &
we've spotted it more than once on customer service staff nametags
The text over the entrance roughly translates
to 'Our bones are here, awaiting your bones'

For staying at Évora we did see a couple of vans spending the night in the big car park to the south of the city walls but I found it too noisy so Matt moved us to the nearby Intermarché (GPS: 38.55279 -7.91218), where there is a service point and parking for up to 48 hours.  It also had the added bonus of being a good point to nip into the Phone House (which I gather is Portuguese Carphone Warehouse from its appearance) inside the Intermarché to pick up a NOS mobile internet SIM (€10 for 10 days unlimited data).  Our internet so far is working a treat, however I’d advise anyone thinking of buying a local SIM whilst travelling to make sure they research what’s on offer before making a purchase, as the guy who served us tried to give us a naff deal on a pricey Vodafone SIM when we first went in.

Before leaving the Évora area, we made a detour out of town to Os Almendres.  Signposted down a dirt track from the town of Guadalupe, you will find, to put it simply, a load of stones.  These were discovered a few decades ago but are believed to have been here from 4000-6000 years BC, and are a circular array of stones dotted on a hillside, of which the original purpose for is unknown.  It was something to see for an afternoon but to be honest it left us feeling a bit underwhelmed, and so it was time to move on to Monsaraz.

- Jo

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